By Alia al-Hathloul
Jan. 13, 2019
Loujain al-Hathloul is a Saudi women's rights activist, a social media
figure, and a political prisoner.
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits
Saudi Arabia on Monday, he is expected to discuss Yemen, Iran and Syria and
“seek an update on the status of the investigation into the death of journalist
I am struck by what is not included in Mr.
Pompeo’s itinerary: the brave women activists of Saudi Arabia, who are being
held in the kingdom’s prisons for seeking rights and dignity. Mr. Pompeo’s
apathy is personal for me because one of the women detained, Loujain
al-Hathloul, is my sister. She has worked relentlessly to earn Saudi women the
right to drive.
I live in Brussels. On May 15, I got a
message from my family that Loujain had been arrested at my parents’ house in
Riyadh, where she was living. I was shocked and confused because the Saudi ban
on women driving was about to be removed.
We could not find out why she was arrested
and where she was being held. On May 19, the Saudi media accused her and the
five other arrested women of being traitors. A government-aligned newspaper
quoted sources predicting the women
would get sentences of up to 20 years — or even the death penalty.
Loujain was first arrested in December 2014
after she tried to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. She was
released after more than 70 days in prison and placed under a travel ban for
In September 2017, the Saudi government
announced that the ban on women driving was going to be removed the following
June. Loujain received a call before the announcement from an official in the
royal court forbidding her from commenting or talking about it on social media.
Loujain moved to the U.A.E. and enrolled
into a master’s degree in applied sociological research at Sorbonne
University’s Abu Dhabi campus. But in March she was pulled over by security
officers while driving, put on a plane and transferred to a prison in Riyadh,
Saudi Arabia. She was released after a few days but banned from travelling
outside the kingdom and warned not to use social media.
Then came her arrest in May. I hoped that
Loujain would be released on June 24, the date for removing the ban on women
driving. That glorious day arrived, and I was delighted to see Saudi women
behind the wheel.
But Loujain was not released. I remained
silent, hoping my silence might protect her. Around that time, I was struck by
a dark trend emerging on social media in Saudi Arabia. Anyone who criticized or
made a remark on anything related to Saudi Arabia was labeled a traitor. Saudi
Arabia has never been a democracy, but it hadn’t been a police state either.
I kept my thoughts and my grief private.
Between May and September, Loujain was held in solitary confinement. In brief
phone calls that she was allowed to make she told us that she was being held in
a hotel. “Are you at the Ritz-Carlton?” I asked. “I don’t have the Ritz status,
but it is a hotel,” she laughed.
In mid-August, Loujain was transferred to
Dhaban prison in Jeddah and my parents were allowed to visit her once a month.
My parents saw that she was shaking uncontrollably, unable to hold her grip, to
walk or sit normally. My strong, resilient sister blamed it on the air-conditioning and tried to assure my
parents that she would be fine.
After the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in
October, I read reports claiming that several people detained by the Saudi
government at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh had been tortured.
I started getting phone calls and messages
from friends and relatives asking if Loujain too had been tortured. I was
shocked by the suggestion. I wondered how people could think a woman could be
tortured in Saudi Arabia. I believed that social codes of the Saudi society
would not allow it.
But by late November, several newspapers,
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported that both male and female
political and human rights activists in Saudi prisons had been tortured. Some
reports mentioned sexual assaults.
My parents visited Loujain at the Dhaban
prison in December. They asked her about the torture reports and she collapsed in
tears. She said she had been tortured between May and August, when she was not
allowed any visitors.
She said she had been held in solitary
confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and
threatened with rape and murder. My parents then saw that her thighs were
blackened by bruises.
Saud al-Qahtani, a top royal adviser, was
present several times when Loujain was tortured, she said. Sometimes Mr.
Qahtani laughed at her, sometimes he threatened to rape and kill her and throw
her body into the sewage system. Along with six of his men, she said Mr.
Qahtani tortured her all night during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. He
forced Loujain to eat with them, even after sunrise. She asked them if they
would keep eating all day during Ramadan. One of his men answered, “No one is
above us, not even God.”
A delegation from the Saudi Human Rights
Commission visited her after the publication of the reports about her torture.
She told the delegation everything she had endured. She asked them if they
would protect her. “We can’t,” the delegates replied.
A few weeks later, a public prosecutor
visited her to record her testimony about torture. After the killing of Mr.
Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia argued that occasionally officials make mistakes and
misuse their power. Yet we are still waiting for justice.
I would have preferred to write these words
in Arabic, in a Saudi newspaper, but after her arrest the Saudi newspapers
published her name, her photographs and labelled her a traitor. The same newspapers
concealed the names and pictures of the men who could face the death penalty
for the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.
Even today, I am torn about writing about
Loujain, scared that speaking about her ordeal might harm her. But these long
months and absence of hope have only increased my desperation to see the travel
bans on my parents, who are in Saudi Arabia, revoked and to see my brave sister
Ms. Hathloul is the sister of the
jailed Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul